President Donald Trump plans to bring home nearly half the U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the next two months even though it is unclear, according to a new Pentagon report and top GOP lawmakers, whether the Taliban has fulfilled all of its promises.
The United States government agreed in February to remove its military forces gradually from Afghanistan if the Taliban stopped attacking U.S. forces there and using its territory as a haven for terrorists. The goal was to have all U.S. troops out by May 2021.
But acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced at the Pentagon Tuesday that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, now at about 4,500, will go down to approximately 2,500 before Trump leaves office in January — a more rapid drawdown than previously planned. Miller also said the U.S. force level in Iraq would drop to 2,500 from the current 3,000.
Miller framed the move as an order to “continue to reposition our forces” and “the next phase of our campaign to defeat terrorists.” He also said the drawdown “does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”
However, the new report to Congress from a group of inspectors general led by the Pentagon’s acting IG, Sean O’Donnell, said the jury is still out on whether the Taliban is holding up its end of the deal.
“It is unclear at this point whether the Taliban is upholding its commitments,” O’Donnell wrote. “While the Taliban has generally honored its obligation to cease attacks against U.S. forces and interests in Afghanistan, it is difficult to discern the extent to which it is meeting the requirement that Afghanistan not serve as a haven for terrorists who threaten the United States. Furthermore, the Taliban has escalated its attacks on Afghan forces, which threatens to derail the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government that began this quarter.”
In the same vein, former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, before he was fired on Nov. 9, reportedly sent Trump a classified memo warning that speedier withdrawals from Afghanistan could endanger security there.
Also on Tuesday, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters at the Heritage Foundation think tank that he does not see any evidence that the Taliban has met its commitments.
“I don’t know of any condition which justifies reducing further the troops that we have in Afghanistan,” said Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of this Congress. “As a matter of fact I think it undercuts the negotiations to say, ‘Well, whatever you do or don’t do, we are going to reduce our troops even further.’”
Thornberry’s harsh assessment of the administration’s potential slashing of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan is the latest of several high-profile GOP criticisms of the proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a floor speech Monday, compared the pullout to the “humiliation” of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.
Another Texas Republican in the House, Michael McCaul, the ranking GOP member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, also criticized Trump’s possible drawdown in a statement Monday.
“A premature U.S. withdrawal would not only jeopardize the Afghan government’s ability to negotiate, but would endanger U.S. counterterrorism interests,” McCaul said. “The U.S.-Taliban agreement is conditions-based for a reason — the Taliban cannot be permitted to not fulfill their commitments while we fulfill ours.”
O’Donnell’s report, meanwhile, noted another open question about the endgame in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The U.S. Government also has a number of programs and contracts, such as vehicle maintenance, pilot training, and aviation fleet modernization, that currently extend well beyond the withdrawal date” of May 2021, he wrote. “Some of those programs will still be necessary to assist Afghanistan with its security and development, and how the contracts will be modified, implemented, and overseen is unclear.”
The move has also drawn rebukes from Democrats who see the outgoing president’s decision as a hasty maneuver to fulfill a campaign promise to terminate America’s “endless wars” in the waning days of his administration.
“We need to bring our troops home, but we must do so as part of a strategy that does not jeopardize the safety of Americans in the U.S. and abroad,” Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, an Armed Services Committee member, said in a statement. “There was no doubt the final days of this Administration would be tumultuous, but the haphazard nature of President Trump’s decision will harm our national security and jeopardize countless American, Afghan, and Iraqi lives.”
Adam Smith, the Democrat from Washington state who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, took a different tack from some other members of his party.
In a statement, Smith called the coming troop drawdown in Afghanistan “the right policy decision” but warned it should be executed “responsibly and carefully.”